On Realising postcapitalism

by Alex Williams


Wither postcapitalism? Across Europe, there are signals today of an evolution or mutation of neoliberal forms of governance, towards a more rapacious and authoritarian genus. But there are also signs of fragility and increasingly metastasising risks. There are rising political populisms in both leftist and right-wing variants that threaten the continued predominance of existing elites.[1] The fragility of austerity as an economic programme which has suppressed growth while failing to restore state finances to pre-crisis levels points towards future, and even more unmanageable, economic and fiscal crises.[2]

The current refugee situation across Europe indicate potential lines of tension for existing structures at the EU level.[3]Thinking more long-term, we can identify two major transformations that portend serious problems for the current neoliberal hegemony: technological and environmental change. On the one hand, technological transformations, in particular new modes of automation, algorithmic technologies, and advanced robotics, pose serious threats to the model of work and its social value which has developed over the course of the last forty years, in turn calling into question the very bases of our present economic system.[4] On the other hand, climate change will both require significant changes to existing systems of production and consumption, as well as creating the need for far greater international and even global coordination to ameliorate its worst effects. The old neoliberal world is sickly, even if it remains momentarily strong in its sickness.

These final, more long-term dynamics imply a range of potential solutions – some of which are clearly leftist in orientation, others of which are more obviously dystopian in their ramifications. One potential future which can be woven from these emergent strands is a hi-tech democratic socialism which puts to work the new technologies of automation to reduce environmental damage, economic inequality, and democratic deficit, setting the stage for a transition to a postcapitalist economy.[5] Yet Klaus Dörre is absolutely correct in arguing that none of these dynamic transformations alone will be sufficient to overcome neoliberal capitalism and transition towards some new phase-state of being.

The potential future which will become realised in time will be the result of the interactions of these complex, non-linear processes with organised human action. This is a strategic game, and we must be absolutely honest with ourselves in understanding that the forces which would seek to re-engineer Europe (and more broadly the world) along postcapitalist lines will be opposed with ruthless efficiency by some of the most potent and well-organised powers in human history. From the global financial system to the ever-encroaching power of big technology firms, from the European union to national level bureaucracies, we are facing interlocking institutions which will fight any and all attempts to do away with their dominion. In this, we are facing a classically hegemonic task: in the teeth of vast opposition, we must use the enemy’s resources to construct a new world.

Any such putatively post-capitalist politics must begin by building upon existing tendencies. While we cannot predict with absolute certainty what will occur, we must be attentive to the likely dynamics which will determine the future landscape to be traversed. The ability to be ahead of the thinking of our opponents will be key to unravelling their attempts to find their own ‘fixes’ to the multitude of transformations our societies are undergoing. In particular, the intertwined problems and opportunities presented by climate change and automation must be seized upon, with their implication of a low growth, high technology future of shared wealth.

Yet it is radically insufficient to hope that any emergency will be sufficient to save us. As we have seen in the years following the 2007-8 financial crisis, the European left was almost entirely incapable of capitalising on what might have been a historical opportunity to shift the overall hegemony of Europe away from the neoliberal trajectory it has been on for the past forty years.

Hence a postcapitalist politics of the future must not wait for the next crisis, but rather must build up the capacities to act in anticipation of it. This was, to simplify things rather drastically, the approach taken by the neoliberals of the Mont Pèlerin Society in establishing neoliberalism.[6] What might these capacities look like in practice? First there is an ideological capacity – which is to say the ability to actually articulate ‘what we want’. This can be considered in philosophical, political, economic and cultural terms. This ideological capacity needs to be embedded in institutions – where the left has failed since the onset of neoliberalism in its existing bastions (the universities) it must today develop new institutions suitable both for the task of radicalising democracy, and also for the technological tenor of our times.

This constitutes an ideological infrastructure, but one which must be put in the service of revivified social movements. The new political populisms of the left offer us the closest resources to hand from which to constitute this, though we must note the limitations of neosocialism in one country – as evidenced by the miserable defeat of Syriza at the hands of an implacable Troika. The objective of such a politics must be to transform, in a piece-by-piece fashion, the political and economic common sense of the continent as a whole. The increasing interest in projects and policies such as universal basic income is here instructive. What once appeared an impossible fantasy is now at the experimental stage in a number of European nations (Finland, the Netherlands, Switzerland).

Each gain and transformation in the horizon of the possible must be defended from incursions from the outside until a critical mass is arrived at. Slow attrition is necessary, guided by a longer term and non-reactive political temporality than the left is familiar and  comfortable with. Initial experiments may well be failures, and there will be a need to persist in spite of this. In time, however, proto-postcapitalist gains must become embedded to construct more long-lasting modes of hegemony, within new economic arrangements (new forms of ownership and control, new replacements for the wage form) and new technical infrastructures (participatory democratic platforms, the technologies of automation, and more efficient green technologies). Alongside this we must envisage a new role for the state, which avoids both the dubious logics of neoliberalism (with its veneration of the state-enabled pseudo-market) and traditional social democracy (with its antediluvian understandings of state control). For postcapitalism to ultimately flourish, it must outcompete the existing models of human society.


 [1] Marina Prentoulis and Lasse Thomassen, “The Winds Are Changing: A New Left Populism for Europe,” Open Democracy, 2015, http://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/marina-prentoulis-lasse-thomassen/winds-are-changing-new-left-populism-for-europe.

[2] Mark Blyth, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[3] Imogen Tyler, “Welcome to Neoliberal Britain: Anti-Immigrant Populism and the Asylum Invasion Complex , 3-4 (14). Pp. 134-147. ISSN 1104-5205,” Glänta 3–4, no. 14 (2015): 134–47.

[4] Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?,” Oxford Martin School, 2013, http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/academic/The_Future_of_Employment.pdf.
[5] Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Folk Politics & the Struggle for Postcapitalism (London; New York: Verso, 2015).
[6] Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe, The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2009).

Alex Williams is a researcher at City University, London. He is the author (with Nick Srnicek) of Inventing the Future (Verso 2015), and is presently working on a book entitled Hegemony Now: Power in the Twenty-First Century.

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